Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

One Million A.D.

The other novellas in One Million A.D. run the gamut from good to very good, although they pale a bit by comparison to Reed’s masterpiece "Good Mountain" (reviewed here 1/25/06). Robert Silverberg can be described in similar turns to Reed–nearly all his stories are worthwhile reading, many among the best of their given year, and producing a handful of genuine masterpieces–although his masterpieces tend to be more regular over a longer period of time than almost any other sf writer. “A Piece of the Great World” is a companion to his short series At Winter’s End and The New Springtime and examines how a group of scientists from the People who dominate the post-Winter age discover survivors from one of the six groups who dominated the pre-Winter age. Typical of Silverberg, its main characters’ interest in and understanding of the history of his world is the driving force behind the story. While I had trouble accepting the protagonists’ ultimate decision, it was still a thoughtful story worthwhile reading.

I have read a handful of Alastair Reynolds’ novellas in various Best-of-the-Year volumes, stories such as “Great Wall of Mars” and “Turquoise Days” and I have always considered him a provocative and wondrous thinker who is also a grand storyteller. “Thousandth Night” has many of those same elements in its tale of one thousand clones of a famous progenitor who are virtually immortal and who gather once every several hundred thousand years to put on a thousand day celebration of their heritage, similarities, and differences.

This time, however, two members of the line discover that one of them has been concealing secrets about his own activities since the last gathering, and they fear it bodes evil for the rest of them. For awhile the story bogs down in a routine mystery about genocide, but that is cleared up rather unexpectedly and the story becomes a bigger examination of people willing to undertake any means, no matter how brutal, to achieve what they consider desirable ends, as well as absolute power corrupting absolutely.

As in the Silverberg story, I found the desired goal of “Great Work” to be somewhat far-fetched, but once I accepted that imaginative leap, I enjoyed the story because of Reynolds’ writing talents.

Nancy Kress’ “Mirror Image” takes as its basic premise the type of straightforward technological progression from current research that seems less likely in lieu of the million year time span of the book’s title. That assumption is a worldwide AI named QUENTIAM with whom all people maintain instantaneous contact and which basically rules the world, although people have the right to make all their own decisions. Overall the story is quite interesting as it asks the question what happens if QUENTIAM shows the slightest possible hint of unreliability? And who would possibly believe you if it were true?

That is the story’s theme although its basic plot is of four clone-sisters who attempt to free their fifth clone-sister who was imprisoned on an alien prison world for destroying an entire inhabited star system. Kress manages to keep the story moving steadily while raising the philosophical issues which are its real purpose.

Charles Stross has always been a difficult writer for me. I tried to read about half of his Accelerando stories, but always stopped between one-quarter and one-halfway through them. Same with his Hugo winner “Concrete Jungle.” They were just too much infodump with characters who were little developed, if at all, and seemed intended only to spout technobabble at each other.

So I approached his novella “Missile Gap” with considerable trepidation. It started out well, being less of a techy wet dream and more of an actual story. Its premise was that the entire surface of Earth sometimes after an alternate “Cuban War” of the 1960s was somehow sliced off the planet and placed onto a giant flat disk somewhere in the Magellanic Cloud. Besides all of Earth’s continents and population, the disk also contains numerous other continents with strange life forms inhabiting them.

There are three main storylines: the first involves Yuri Gagarin and the Russian response to the crisis; the second involves Carl Sagan with some clandestine organization having ties to America and their response; the third involves everyday Americans emigrating to one of the new continents.

Not being particularly a fan of thrillers or political fiction, I liked the third plotline the most. The main character Maddy becomes the assistant to an entomologist studying the lifeforms of that continent. When he encounters a particularly toxic type of termite, he almost loses his life. Meanwhile the termites seem to be more than first meets the eye, and threaten to become a major problem for all the human emigrés to that continent.

But just when the third plotline is growing very interesting, the second plotline rears its head and brings the entire story to a crashing–and somewhat unsatisfying–halt. It leaves all the other developments incomplete, and seemed more of a copout than a real conclusion. Too bad, because for the first time I was growing to like a Stross story.

As an aside, I am not sure what Stross’ story has to do with the One Million A.D. format either, but that is a minor complain against considerations of a story’s other qualities.

Although it would seem that Greg Egan would appeal to the same audience as Charles Stross, I have always enjoyed Egan as a storyteller. While his stories are also dense with ideas, they never seemed crowded into the story for their own sake, but part of the background of what feels like real people undergoing real situations. “Riding the Crocodile” starts with a classic sf premise of two immortals growing weary of life and looking to end their lives. But they prefer to go out with a big splash, and what better way than to be the first humans to infiltrate the galactic core where beings known as Aloofs have rejected all human attempts to contact them?

There is a long segment of technotalk in the middle of the story, but otherwise it is an enjoyable story about attempted first contact that falls somewhere in the middle of the book qualitywise.

Overall, One Million A.D. was a fascinating book with no real duds and one bona fide masterpiece. What more can I ask for in an original anthology?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Good Mountain

As the book’s title indicates, the stories in One Million A.D. edited by Gardner Dozois, are set in the far-future when human culture, and perhaps even human life itself, are considerably evolved from their current form. The far-future is not a common setting for most sf. Even prior to its “contemporization” of the past 20 years, most sf has been set in the near future when human culture could be extrapolated from modern life with one or two changes at most. The farther writers venture into the future, the more drastic the changes, and the less recognizable the culture becomes. Thus, the stories themselves become harder to write, since the more drastic the changes the more the writer must explain to the reader, thus making the trap of expository lumps and telling-rather-than-showing more inviting. The best writers of far future sf such as Jack Vance in his Dying Earth series and Greg Benford in his Galactic Cluster series not only avoid this trap, but somehow embrace its possibilities.

The opening novella in the book was "Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, who is one of the most reliable writers of short science fiction of the past few decades. Nearly all of his stories are worthwhile reading, many of them are among the best of their given year, and he has produced a small handful of genuine masterpieces (highlighted in my mind by “The Utility Man” and “The Remoras”). I think it is safe to say that “Good Mountain” belongs in that select list of great Robert Reed stories.

In Reed’s imagined future, humans live on a decidedly un-Earthlike world in which continents drift, forming and breaking apart regularly as islands clash and separate. The continents are inhabited by humans, giant worms which are used as transportation much like trains with people riding inside them, and mockeymen who are bred as servants.

As the story opens, the continent on which it is set is in dire peril as huge fissures emitting geysers of poisonous flammable gas are opening. The gas and subsequent fires are spreading rapidly across the continent, consuming everything in their path, and killing everybody living along the way. Many people are trying to survive with the help of gas masks, apparently a traditional safety device for humans on that world, but the fires are foiling such attempts this time.

The protagonist Jopale and his mockeyman are fleeing on a worm to a far-distant shore where ships are waiting to take select rich people to near-legendary New Isles. They began their journey soon after the first fissures opened when all life on the continent did not seem imperiled, but as they travel, the conflagration is following them, and what began as almost a quixotic flight has become a desperation attempt to survive.

Reed does a spectacular job of blending the sense of wonder of his exotic world, the personalities of the refugees, tidbits about the world’s background, and the gradually-developing thriller aspect of the story. The two most interesting characters are Brace, the worm’s caretaker, and Do-Ane, a female scientist who has been studying a mysterious mountain buried beneath their destination of Good Mountain, which she and her colleagues believe might be the remnants of an ancient spaceship which brought humans to their world, a spaceship which she hints might be a place of security for the refugees.

In my opinion, “Good Mountain” contains all the elements of great science fiction, and if this is any indication of the thrills awaiting me in my search for new sense of wonder, it should be a hell of a journey ahead.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Science Fiction Book Club

I first joined the Science Fiction Book Club in 1967 when I was young and starry-eyed about science fiction, having just discovered it a few years earlier in the pages of Galaxy and Worlds of IF. My first “main selections” were Harlan Ellison’s new anthology Dangerous Visions and Roger Zelazny’s novel Lord of Light. Talk about a great way to win over a new member!

Although my membership in the SFBC has lapsed occasionally, I have pretty much remained a member for the past 40 years. Their prices have remained very good relative to hardcover prices, and even better than most trade paperback prices as well. What I have always liked best about the club though has been their exclusive club multi-volume editions containing two or three books in a series in one volume, which brings the cost down even more. Such recent volumes have included collections of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes space adventures, and Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles.

Recently the SFBC has spread its tentacles even farther and begun publishing anthologies of original novellas. It started a few years ago with The Dragon Quintet, a collection of fantasy novellas about dragons, edited by Marvin Kaye. I had no particular interest in dragons, but two years ago they started a series of anthologies of science fiction novellas, six in each, edited by leading names in the field and containing stories by some of the best writers as well. First was Robert Silverberg’s Between Worlds in 2004 which contained stories by Stephen Baxter, James Patrick Kelly, Nancy Kress, Mike Resnick, Walter Jon Williams and Silverberg himself. Two of the stories were reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ Best Science Fiction of the Year, which naturally made me sit up and notice.

2005 saw the publication of Mike Resnick’s Down These Noir Spaceways, a collection of future sf mysteries. The authors were Jack McDevitt, Robert Sawyer, Robert Reed, Catherine Asaro, David Gerrold and Resnick. 2006 has already seen the publication of Gardner Dozois’ One Million A.D. featuring Robert Reed, Robert Silverberg, Nancy Kress, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross and Greg Egan.

Recently I finished reading the two latter collections, and they were every bit as good as the list of contributors would lead you to believe. All three anthologies have the added advantage of featuring stories set in traditional future settings, which is my favorite type of sf (as my blog of 1/3/06 indicated). I hope the SFBC continues to publish such anthologies, and you can look forward to reviews of all three of the books in this blog in the near future.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Illustrated Man

One morning last fall I arrived at school and found 10 paperback books in my mailbox, 8 of them by Ray Bradbury, only two of which I had read previously, The Martian Chronicles and The Machineries of Joy. For some reason, although I loved both those books, I only have 2 other Bradbury books in my collection, Fahrenheit 451 and a massive 1980 collection The Stories of Ray Bradbury, containing what they claimed was his 100 best stories. I enjoyed all those books, so my immediate thought was to keep the 6 Bradbury books I had not read. But then I decided it would be better to share some of the books with some friends at school who also enjoy science fiction: George, a physics teacher who recommended the series Battlestar Gallactica to me two years ago; my brother David who has been reading sf his whole life, although his first love is really mysteries; and Preeti, who bought two classic Indian novels for me last summer.

That night I immediately started reading The Illustrated Man. Keeping in mind it has been thirty years since I have read any Bradbury, except for an occasional story here and there, I really did not know if his particular brand of fiction would still have any resonance with me. Happily, and perhaps not surprisingly, the answer is definitely yes. In his prime Bradbury had the ability to write fiction which kept one foot in pure sense of wonder and the other foot in the darker side of life. While his stories are very literate, combining outstanding writing with strong characterization, the stories in this book are nowhere near the type of slipstream fiction which barely tingles the edges of genre fiction. Both his fantasy and his science fiction demonstrate pure sfnal hearts and love that many of today’s “borderline” writers, including some who have been influenced by Bradbury, do not share at all. And for somebody who has grown a bit weary of contemporary stories which are primarily mainstream with only the merest hint of f&sf, early Bradbury is a welcome tonic since it is good literature while still firmly sfnal.

While many of Bradbury’s stories are more vignettes than complete stories, they always have a point, and it is usually a point with a dark heart. The most famous story in the collection is probably “The Veldt,” about the two children who transfer their love for their parents to their interactive nursery. The story’s ending is obvious from the first page–or perhaps that is merely residual memory from having read the story previously–but the story still succeeds in spite of it.

Other strong stories include:

• “Kaleidoscope,” about a group of astronauts whose spaceship has been destroyed and who are all trapped in space, obviously not being rescued, and thus fated to die;
• “The Long Rain,” about a group of Earthmen trapped in the endless rain of the traditional Venus, seeking the Sun Domes where Earthlike environments have been established;
• “The Rocket Man,” which describes a lure of space so strong that it keeps a man away from his family even while he tries desperately to keep his son away from the same life;
• “The Exiles,” which might have been the inspiration for “The Fireman,” in its description of the ghosts of famous writers such as Poe, Dickens, Bierce, who have fled to Mars after the banning of all their books on Earth;
• “The Fire Balloons,” about a group of priests relocating to Mars with the intention of saving the ancient Martians from their sins.

While The Illustrated Man is not as strong as The Martian Chronicles, it will not disappoint those who seek another fix of Bradbury fiction.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Space Opera

By the 1990s the science fiction field had changed considerably from what it had been prior to the 1980s. I fell in love with science fiction because of its far-future expanses, its sense of wonder, alien worlds, and development of future history. Even many “New Wave” writers who tried infusing traditional sf with modern literature still emphasized the future, people such as Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Michael Bishop, Ursula K Le Guin, and Harlan Ellison.

But the 1980s saw the “Cyberpunk” movement which dwelled in the very near-future, stories which were so close to the present that by 2000 we have actually passed most of those stories by, both in time frame and in technological development. Cyberpunk’s main foundation was strict logical development that could reasonably happen in the foreseeable future. It was not interested in future historical development, nor any far-future theories. Where were we headed immediately, how would we get there, and how would we react to it?

Soon after Cyberpunk, three other developments also had major effects on the shape of the fantasy and science fiction genres: alternate history, urban fantasy, and slipstream. Those three movements started out slowly, but by 2000 had enveloped such a large portion of the genres that “traditional” future-based science fiction had became an endangered species.

Looking back at my sf reading in the past decade, the majority of it fell into one of the sub-genres listed above. There were so few far-future based novels that it is no wonder I began growing restless with what I was reading. I began spending more time reading “classic” sf from the 60s and 70s, writers such as Jack Vance, Robert Silverberg, and Clifford D. Simak who set their stories in far-futures dripping with sense of wonder and future history. Several friends told me that traditional science fiction did not exist anymore, but I was convinced it still does. It is just not as popular as the alt hist / slipstream / fantasy sub-genres and so needs to be sought out a bit more carefully.

So in the past year I began deliberately looking for more of the type of sf which I love the most. I started thinking about “New Space Opera,” which began in England and gradually worked its way across the Atlantic. At first I mostly ignored it, since it brought back memories of E.E. Smith and Star Wars, neither of which was my favorite. But then I recalled the 70s Space Opera revival, spearheaded by the likes of Greg Benford, C.J. Cherryh and Larry Niven, all of whom I enjoyed tremendously. So what if 90% of space opera is trash? Sturgeon’s Law applies everywhere, doesn’t it?

And this past year I read Jack McDevitt’s far-future mystery Polaris, which I loved, and I realized that there is indeed a lot of far-future sf out there. Some of the short fiction I’ve read by the likes of Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton, and Alastair Reynolds has been superb. So I spent a few weeks thinking and researching before I added a handful of new books to my “Recommend Reading” list, both “New Space Opera” and other tales of alien cultures and future history, several of which I hope to buy and read in 2006:

Ilium, Olympos, by Dan Simmons
Infinity Beach, Seeker, Deepsix, Chindi, Omega, by Jack McDevitt
Survival, Migration, Regeneration, by Julie Czerneda
Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, by Ian M. Banks
The Time Ships, Coalescent, Exultant, Transcendence, by Stephen Baxter
Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod
Marrow, The Well of Stars, by Robert Reed
Chasm City, Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds
• One Million A.D., edited by Gardner Dozois

To be continued later this year (hopefully!).